Ancient grains and seeds are awesome
Cookbooks are no longer just cookbooks.
December 13th, 2018
Such is the case with Awesome Ancient Grains & Seeds, a hybrid gardening/ cookbook by Dan Jason and Michele Genest–reviewed by Grahame Ware.
Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds: A Garden-to-Kitchen Guide. Includes 50 Vegetarian Recipes
by Dan Jason and Michele Genest
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2018
$24.95 / 9781771621779
Reviewed by Grahame Ware
It’s always hard to review a publication whose identity and structure has a turbid editorial focus. There are many literate types who would question the need to review anything with the taint of a cookbook. However, ever since the remarkable success of James Barber’s Ginger Tea Makes Friends (J.J. Douglas, 1971 — Douglas & McIntyre’s first big success), publishers have taken notice and grabbed a large cookbook market share from flour and baking corporations. Data compiled by BookNet Canada found that 1.4 million English-language books in the “cooking” subject category were sold in 2017, valued at $47.4 million.
Some very fine and eminently reviewable cookbooks (with literate narratives of course!) have made their way out of the D&M stable over the last few decades, notably Umberto Menghi’s Umberto’s Kitchen: The Flavours of Tuscany (1995), Vikran Vis and Meeru Dhalwala’s Vij’s Elegant & Inspired Indian Cuisine (2006) and Vikram Vij, Vij: A Chef’s One-Way Ticket to Canada with Indian Spices in His Suitcase (2017), a Gold Medal winner at this year’s Taste Canada Awards. Of course, D&M’s art director Peter Cocking and photographer John Sherlock had something to do with those winners.
Cookbooks are no longer just cookbooks. Such is the case with Awesome Ancient Grains & Seeds, a hybrid gardening/ cookbook by Dan Jason and Michele Genest.
Dan Jason is no stranger to the pages of The Ormsby Review or BC Bookworld. He is known for his pathbreaking Some Useful Wild Plants (1971; new edition by Harbour Publishing, 2017, reviewed by Natasha Lyons in The Ormsby Review #169, September 2017).
Hard on the heels of his most recent co-authored book, The Power of Pulses: Saving the World with Peas, Beans, Chickpeas, Favas and Lentils (D&M, 2016), comes another from the Douglas & McIntyre stable (and D&M associate editor, Carol Pope), Awesome Ancient Grains & Seeds. In format, size and style, it is nearly identical to the 2016 offering, using the garden-to-kitchen formula in a tag-team fashion.
Potential readers of Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds will be drawn to the idea of growing grains in the home garden not only with an idea of whipping up some healthy and delicious looking meals but, more importantly, using one’s own property to grow and harvest grains that are ostensibly much healthier for you because they have an “ancient” heritage.
With this book, editor Carol Pope has merged Dan Jason’s philosophical and pragmatic gardening approach to growing grains (many of which are not “ancient” but rather heirlooms or selections of existing grains), with an emerging cookbook author, Michele Genest.
It has the look of an old cookbook with swirly typeface. I found it odd that Pope did the foreword, which seemed a bit of a clumsy exercise in cheerleading, as is the use of the word “awesome” in the title. And while Dan Jason does a nice preface, there is very little integration and interaction between the two writers in this production.
So, other than these (and a few other) shortcomings, does this book have merit? Absolutely – starting with the very good photos. The principal photography is by Sechelt-based Christina Symons, whose studio shots of the various grains and soy varieties are informative and eye-catching. She absolutely shines when shooting the food, providing some outstanding macro pics with just the right amount of bokah.
The other photographer, Salt Spring Islander Karen Mouat, does really well shooting amaranth on Dan’s farm and capturing many luscious shots of various aspects of his farm through the growing season. Even Dan Jason himself provides some great pics, especially his macro of an awn of “Utrecht Blue” wheat (p. 83). Overall, the photography is a real strength in this production.
A Homesteader is Born
Frances Moore Lappé, with a book entitled Diet for a Small Planet
In 1971, a new environmental organization sprang up, one that was principally opposed to nuclear power. They called themselves Friends of the Earth. For their first publication they sponsored a young writer, Frances Moore Lappé, with a book entitled Diet for a Small Planet. It eventually sold three million copies worldwide and was “one of the most influential political tracts of the times,” according to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
I was not alone in absorbing Lappé’s message of economic vegetarianism directed at a much better use of the earth’s agricultural resources. Obviously, it also deeply affected Montreal native and nascent B.C. homesteader Dan Jason. Much of Jason’s bedrock fervour and the arc of his narrative centre around the key principles of Lappé’s book.
The crux of ancient grains is that they have the scope in their DNA to withstand a number of less-than-ideal circumstances, while quite possibly not producing the higher yields of their hybridized offsping. Nonetheless, they have staying power and are a good match for the home gardener or farmer. In this latest book, Jason tells us how to grow grains in the home garden with low tech and simple harvest ideas with, perhaps, too little on how to harvest them. He bemoans the use of Roundup, generically called Glyphosate, the infamous post-emergent chemical pesticide that industrial agribiz giants such as Cargill love to promote in their industrial food growing.
Jason contends, with scientific studies to back him up, that the two-headed monster of pesticides and industrializing of food production have done great damage to the essence of grains. In Canada in 2014, eight million hectares of genetically modified (GMO) canola (rapeseed) was grown, most of it for oil and most of it exported. In addition, 2.2 million hectares of soybeans were grown, principally for livestock feed. This pales to the 32 million hectares of soybeans under cultivation in the US, 29 million hectares in Brazil, and 21 million hectares in Argentina. The bulk of soybean production worldwide is skewed towards livestock — about ninety percent. These are staggering global numbers, especially when one keeps in mind that with the amount being grown coupled with their caloric food value, it could very well feed 1.29 billion people/annum.
Jason asserts that the GMO/ Glyphosate duo is the likely culprit in the rise in popularity of gluten-free food products. Why? He wonders aloud, “So could it be that, instead of gluten intolerance, many North Americans actually are struggling with glyphosphate intolerance?” (p. 78). In other words, digestion problems have more to do with the residues and toxins in the grains than with the grains themselves, which have been altered by Big AgriBiz. Different hybrid grains and different biochemical methods have created new problems.
Alarmingly, the grains fed to livestock have a negative impact on global warming due to the great amount of methane produced. “Fifty percent of global methane (with 25 times the GWP of CO2) is produced by industrial livestock operations.” The impact is compounded by a global trade structure that was created to turn farming from a local enterprise into a planet-sized business.
Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds does provide facts and studies that buttress arguments against Big AgriBiz. But a quibble and question: “Do I really need to take out a magnifying glass to check out the studies that corroborate Jason’s argument at the back of the book?” Apparently, I do. But these are not footnotes, they’re endnotes. As such, the font size should have been at least as large as the Index font sizes that follow. If the pages given over to this section had been fully utilized, this would not have been necessary as there was room for larger, more readable font size for the endnotes.
The essence of grains is their simplicity and versatility. Specifically, ancient grains can provide a lot of nutrition at little cost to the environment. Why? Because they can be grown in average soil and in relatively hostile conditions, such as exist in most of B.C. Jason believes that this is where the home gardener or small farmer can really take an edge with ancient grains, for example by utilizing marginal land with an exposure that isn’t ideal and getting food that will do many things for your kitchen and health, such as providing great sprouts for salads and flour and grains for breads, cereals, porridges, etc. With relatively little effort, and on ground that is sometimes not the best, Jason contends that the yields and returns here on the west coast will surprise, especially in the rain-shadow of Vancouver Island’s protective Arrowsmith Massif with its aridifying effects.
The low-input energy factor is significant here, as Dan told me: “I do most of my work on the farm myself with the help of one person part time.” Somewhere in the firmament, Bill Mollison — the father of permaculture — is smiling.
Jason makes some great points about using barley, amaranth, wheat, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, etc. These discussions ground the book. What makes a compelling case for these grains is that Jason is doing it on the west coast, albeit in the aforementioned adiabatic compression zone of Salt Spring Island. “It is time that we appreciate not only the nourishment homegrown whole grains and seeds provide but the energy not spent (on growing them)” (p. 5). And, he continues on p. 8, these grains “give generously to the ecosystem of the organic garden — attracting helpful bees (and allies), boosting nitrogen, tolerating drought (thus, not requiring as much water as a traditional vegetable garden) adding mulch and reducing soil erosion.”
Grains Worth Knowing
Jason loves amaranth, but this isn’t your grandfather’s barnyard pigweed. Nosiree! Jason details the qualities of the cultivars that he has experienced and sells through his Salt Spring Seeds, a top-notch seedco, by the way.
One cultivar in particular that has delighted him is one that he has selected and dubbed “Shiny Black Amaranth.” What sets it apart is its chocolaty aroma, sweet flavour, and terrific aftertaste. He is also quick to point out (p. 15) that many of the amaranths he sells have wonderful “greens” as well. In fact, he claims they are sweeter than spinach or chard. In addition, they have higher levels of calcium, phosphorous, and Vitamin C than many vegetables and, like those, amaranth can be steamed, stir-fried, or sautéed. Go amaranth!
Dan Jason also loves barley, especially the hull-less varieties and those that work for malting and making your own beer or ale. In this section, he provides his own good, old-fashioned downhome recipes for barley and does much the same for other faves such as buckwheat and flax.
Jason loves pumpkin seeds, finding them “to be a wonderful, high-yielding, protein-rich food that can be easily grown…” (p. 51). Note that unlike many of the ancient grains that Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds concentrates on (outside of the soybeans chapter), pumpkins love fertile, enriched soil. But not just any old Jack ‘O Lantern plebe. Jason touts one pumpkin strain in particular — the Styrian strain. It stands out for “its rich taste, earliness of appearance and productivity;” it is now “the only one I grow.” The Styrian pumpkin, or Cucurbita pepo ssp. var. styrian, originated as a sport or mutation in Styria, Austria in the late 17th century and quickly became popular as an oil seed, a popularity that continues to this day. In Austria it is known as Olkurbis (oil squash).
Quite a bit of research work and trialling has been done on the polymorphic Styrian pumpkin in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Improvements in disease resistance and yield were some of the goals. Post-1945 cultivars such as Lady Godiva have been eclipsed by the hybrid cultivar, Naked Bear, available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine.  But the Styrian itself is a winner — and if it ain’t broken, etc.
Q & A with Dan Jason
Like many people, I am astounded at all of the grassroots self-publishing that Dan has done over the years. I’ve read many conflicting facts from other writers about his production. Thus, I wanted to know just how many self-published books and bulletins he’s produced; I wanted to get his publication history from the horse’s mouth:
GW: What year did you start the Salt Spring Seed Co with an offer sheet like the 1989 one that you sent along?
JASON: My first catalogue was a one-pager in 1986.
GW: You self-published two cookbooks and several other publications. How many in total have you self-published?
JASON: As well, I did a Garlic Book, plus one called Your Own Food, plus Saving Seeds as if Our Lives Depended on it, plus some poetry books (Zama’s Book, Songs for Poets, Lovers, and Devil Dancers, West Coast Whimsy, and Womance). The last one I just reprinted as Songs Sung Then — 40 Years on Salt Spring Island. The Seed Saving Book has sold close to 13,000 copies.
GW: What organizations, and how many of them, have you started and how many are still thumping along?
JASON: I helped start the Heritage Seed Program of Canada, which is now called Seeds of Diversity Canada. With two friends, I started Island Natural Growers here on Salt Spring. I initiated our large allotment gardens on the south end of the island. I started The Seed and Plant Sanctuary for Canada here in 2002; it is now called the Salt Spring Seed Sanctuary. All four are still going strong.
GW: What person or organization in your field do you admire the most?
JASON: All the Seedy Saturdays and Sundays in British Columbia. Every town, region, and city has one and they are all organized and run by amazing, dedicated people.
GW: Besides gardening, what else do you love to do?
JASON: I love running the business and social side of Salt Spring Seeds. I love hanging out with kids.
GW: Are you writing now, or do you have something in the hopper, so to speak?
JASON: I’m hoping to write a book about Changing the Climate very soon.
The Cookbook Half
The cookbook half of the book is by Toronto transplant, Michele Genest. After two decades, she seems to have recovered rather nicely from the central Canadian experience into that beautifully wild part of the world, Whitehorse. She certainly has developed a flair for using raw and wild ingredients. Her presence in the book is meant to give it an appeal to that most important demographic — the thirty-something woman.
I am a cook and I buy and collect old cookbooks for fun. After all, cookbooks — like dictionaries — really are ageless. Those that predate the celebrity cook phenomena are my favourites. But the proof is in the pudding, as the platitude has it, so I decided to test a few recipes.
First up was the wholewheat chapatis recipe. Sorry, Michele, but it was a disaster! Compared to the recipe Vij’s Elegant & Inspired Indian Cuisine, Genest’s chapatis just didn’t work. Pssst … try using some bran and avocado oil in the ingredients and give the dough more time to rise — at least an hour in the fridge before rolling them out. And, when cooking, give the chapatis more time to cook, at least forty seconds before flipping over, and then repeat for another ten seconds each side.
However, the whole grain Taboulleh with toasted walnuts and feta (p. 141) was simply killer. I can’t wait to try the Emmer Dolmades, although I’ll likely make more than suggested because of all the work to make them. Overall, I found Genest’s recipes and instructions solid but I don’t get a great deal of emotional narrative from her. Its all business. I have yet to feel that tizzie in my cooking apron, unable to control myself from blasting into the kitchen. So, whether it is the fall-down laughing humour of James Barber’s Ginger Tea Makes Friends, or the wise utterings and pointers of Vij, or Umberto Menghi in Umberto’s Kitchen; in all of these there is a soul, a voice, a style one can relate to and, eventually, rely on. I’m hoping to make that connection with Genest sometime in the future, either with this book or another book that is totally hers.
Undoubtedly, Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds will be of interest, if not deeply so, to those newcomers (read younger) with a back-to-the-land ethos as well as people who could rightly be called heirs of the seminal book, Diet for a Small Planet, which argued — with a fair degree of accuracy — that world hunger was really a result of misguided food policy driven, not surprisingly, by the elitist hegemony of industrial agribusiness. This imperialist approach took the form of the breaking-down not only anthropological means of farming and gathering but also time-honoured, small-scale methods preferred by local farmers. In a rush to modernity, farmers ran into the capitalist clutches of multi-national firms.
Thus, the inherent inability to feed ourselves wasn’t or isn’t the problem. The solution offered in Diet for a Small Planet was basically to free up the grain resources used for meat production (specifically beef and to a lesser degree pork) and reconfigure them for developing a more broad-based, bigger bang-for-your-eco-buck vegetarian diet.
But even before Lappé’s important book came out, Vancouver had the Golden Lotus Natural Foods on 4th Ave. This morphed into the Naam Restaurant which is described by the street artist and poet, Keith McKellar (a.k.a. Laughing Hand) in his primo publication, Neon Eulogy, as “a journeyed caravan through time to be in our midst, as through some organic hologram,” or transported to the present in an “elongated time-pod.”
Local people such as Arran Stephens grew out of this place to start Lifestream Foods (and later Nature’s Path). Lifestream would source its soy-based products from Sunrise Foods on Powell Street in Vancouver; they were their first non-Asian customer. Nature’s Path is now a major provider of grains and organic foods across North America.
Of course, the homegrown, ancient grains direct from your garden-to-your-kitchen approach may well be unrealistic for many. Thus, reputable outside sources of grains, seeds, flour, and bread are important (see list of granaries below). The southern interior leads the way, especially the North Okanagan with its good, deep soils and heat values. This area, which already had Rogers Flour and B.C.’s premier barley-malting operation, Gambrinus Malting in Armstrong, has been joined by some organic micromills and granaries. Newbies in this organic grassroots grain boom are Fieldstone Organics in Armstrong and Wolfgang’s Grain & Flour in Enderby; Treasure Life Flour Mills (a part of the Kootenay Coop) in Creston/Nelson; and in Chilliwack, a well-marketed company, Anita’s Organic Mill. Vancouver Island’s True Grain has been around for a while and are expanding to the mainland.
B.C. is experiencing a definite upsurge in activity in organic grains and flours. Jason and Genest’s book will promote the importance of organic elements and nutrition in pace with the localized production of whole grains across the province. It’s taken a long, long, time but people are really starting to get it. Awesome Ancient Grains and Seeds will provide a food and garden framework for the future, a template to allow people to take control of their own food chain — and make their own bread from scratch.
What Dan Jason has done with this book is hardly breaking news. But what is important to him and inevitably his readers is his advocacy of ancient grains and his model of an unfettered homegrown harvest that provides nutrition at little cost to the environment. To be sure, it is an old message but it remains a good and timely one. Moreover, it is one that we must listen to closely in a world that is not immune to the unholy climactic mess that is being unleashed from the first shudderings of the Anthropocene Era.
Organic Granaries in B.C.
True Grain has two stores on Vancouver Island (Cowichan Bay and Courtenay) offering the only Vancouver Island-grown stoneground organic wheat. They also have a store in Summerland: http://www.truegrain.ca/farming/
Anita’s Organic Mill in Chilliwack is possibly the most widely available brand, if my experience is any litmus: https://anitasorganic.com/about-anitas/
A certified organic milling establishment, Fieldstone Organics in Armstrong features an impressive line-up of grains and legumes and a range of efficient and impressive home mills for sale: https://www.fieldstoneorganics.ca/products/mills-flakers.php
In Enderby, Wolfgang’s Grain & Flour has a very good line-up of flour, flakes, and kernels grown and sold mostly in the local area: http://wolfgangsgrainandflour.ca/product
Creston’s Treasure Life Flour Mills provides its products to the Kootenay Coop: https://kootenay.coop/blog/why-buy-good-food/true-local-food-products/treasure-life-flour-mills/
 The Friends of the Earth Society (FOTE) was started just two years earlier, in 1969. with a huge donation of $200,000. This seed money came from Texas oil tycoon, Robert O. Anderson (chairman at the time of oil major, ARCO). FOTE underwrote the Ballantine Books publication, Diet For A Small Planet. Ironically, Anderson about this time owned the largest cattle ranch in the U.S. and was, unsurprisingly, the largest individual landowner in the US. He has often been referred to as the head of the Zero Growth elite.
 An even better study (unavailable at press time to Jason) is the Global Glyphosphate Study of May 2018. One of the authors, Jia Chen, writes that “Glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) are of significant public health concern because of their widespread and sharply increased usage…. However, there are no studies on the potential effects of GBHs on the gut microbiome in the human population. Our study provides initial evidence that exposures to commonly used GBHs, at doses considered safe, are capable of modifying the gut microbiota in early development, particularly before the onset of puberty. Further long-term investigations are necessary to elucidate if the shift in the microbiota induced by GBHs exposure is contributing to the other health effects downstream. Nevertheless, understanding the microbiota changes during this critical window of susceptibility could be of great importance for disease prevention.” See Global Glyphosate Study: https://glyphosatestudy.org/press-release/global-glyphosate-study-pilot-phase-shows-adverse-health-effects-at-safe-doses/
 Recent trials and evaluations at both UBC and Washington State University back this up: UBC Wheat trials: https://bcfoodweb.ca/briefs/growing-organic-small-grains-south-coastal-bc-comparing-protein-concentrations-wheat-and Full report: http://file.scirp.org/Html/14-2600307_19542.htm; WSU Mt. Vernon: http://thebreadlab.wsu.edu/small-grains-program-wsu-mount-vernon/
 Incidentally, corn gets a bad rap because of its bioengineering at the hands of Big AgriBiz. But why not look at corn for flour through the eyes of the Hopi. See some terrific types here that are “traditional” such as Hopi Greasy Head: https://shop.nativeseeds.org/collections/corn-flour/products/zf051
 Amaranth species are wind pollinated and easily cross. I recommend that you bag seedheads to maintain purity. Bagging maturing seedheads makes harvesting the grain easy as well. Native Seeds/Search sells “tassel bags:” https://shop.nativeseeds.org/collections/seed-saving-supplies/products/sss008. Or consider blossom bags to prevent cross-pollination: https://shop.nativeseeds.org/collections/seed-saving-supplies/products/sss006
 One of the leading pumpkin researchers and hybridizers in the world, Brent Loy of the University of New Hampshire considers “Naked Bear, a semi-bush, hull-less seeded pumpkin with tolerance to powdery mildew and some fruit rot diseases, to be one of his most prominent breeding accomplishments. Naked Bear gives extremely high seed yields than the usual Styrian and does it in a smaller area.” For Johnny’s see https://tinyurl.com/y87ygq9o
 Neon Eulogy: Vancouver Cafe & Street (Ekstasis Editions, Vancouver, 2001) This marvellous book represents one of the most original social history creations of the last twenty years. Out of print.James Barber’s Ginger Tea Makes Friends (J.J. Douglas, 1971
Grahame Ware has been an organic gardener ever since he read Rodale’s classic book, The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening in about 1970, which inspired him to turn on as many people as he could to organic gardening. In 1975 he grew and sold 250 pounds of his organic tomatoes from the North Okanagan to the East End Coop in Vancouver. In the late 80s, he worked at Dominion Seedhouse where he trialled vegetables and updated their catalogue. In 1989 he produced the first seed catalogue for Pacific Northwest Seeds in Vernon. Later, as a specialist in ornamental grasses and native seeds, he started Natural Legacy, his own seedco. He taught horticulture in the Continuing Education program at Okanagan College and had a thriving landscape business specializing in xeriscapes and rock gardens. Author of numerous articles in top horticultural journals around the world, including the Royal Horticultural Society’s The Plantsman, he is also author of Heucheras and Heucherellas: Coral Bells and Foamy Bells (Timber Press, 2005, with Dan Helms). He lives on Gabriola Island where he devotes his time to wood carving/ sculpture, www.phantasma.ca; to his blog, http://oldcelluloselips.blogspot.com/ and, of course, to writing and gardening.
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